Healthy School Lunches

Packing a school lunch has become less a matter of saving money or satisfying a finicky eater—it’s now a matter of health.

With childhood obesity rates at the highest levels ever—the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey estimates a scale-tilting 19.6 percent of U.S. children ages 6-11 are in the 95th percentile of the body mass index, which designates the term obesity—everyone including first lady Michelle Obama is taking steps to reverse the expanding waistlines of America’s children.

Suzanne Henson, assistant professor and director of the Coordinated Program in Dietetics at The University of Alabama, offers her tips on packing school lunches loaded in flavor and nutritional value.

  • Let children shop for, clean, peel or cut up fruits and vegetables (depending on age). If they feel invested in their lunch, they’re more likely to eat it.
  • Let children select the dinner vegetable and then pack leftovers into the child’s lunchbox.
  • Watch for foods that can pose a choking hazard for younger children. Cut food into small bites.
  • Don’t force children to eat foods, and avoid mealtime and food choices becoming a “battleground.”
  • Substitute healthier ingredients for those less healthful ones your child enjoys
  • “Go for Color” is still great advice. Colorful fruits and vegetables are nutrition powerhouses because they’re loaded with good-for-you vitamins and minerals.
  • If you have a child with a food intolerance or sensitivity, always check the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed on a food label in descending order by weight. Reading the ingredient list also helps us to understand what we are eating.
  • Take children shopping when both you and they are not hungry – you’re less likely to fill the cart with unplanned purchases if you have eaten before you go shopping.
  • Be aware of how companies market food to children. For example, something as simple as the foods a child sees from their eye level in a grocery cart to web-based games featuring popular characters off the cereal box can impact your child’s stated preferences.
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